By the middle of this week, the Iranian authorities in Tehran had declared that the major protests against rising fuel prices that have been sweeping the country were “almost calm, though some insurgents remain”.
Yet, these protests differ from the previous major challenges to the Iranian regime that the latter has successfully suppressed. Even if the regime is successful in calming the protests for now, the root causes of the latest wave of protests will remain. They are unlikely to go away anytime soon, and they could pose a serious threat to the ruling regime.
The rise in fuel prices was not unexpected as the government in Tehran has been debating it for a year now. Since the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran last year after US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the world’s major powers in 2015, the Iranian economy has declined rapidly.
It is expected to shrink by almost ten per cent this year, and the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been exploring every avenue to squeeze spending.
Having the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, Iran is able to heavily subsidise fuel for its citizens. Even after the latest large increases, Iranian fuel prices remain among the least expensive in the world. But as the US news agency the Associated Press reported this week, “in a nation where many get by as informal taxi-drivers, cheap gasoline is considered a birthright.”
Trying to soothe the economic impacts, Rouhani said the slashing of the fuel subsidies was needed to free up more money for handouts to impoverished Iranians. However, this did not convince many, as many Iranians are already struggling with a collapsing currency and a lack of jobs.
The last major challenge to the regime was the eight months of protests a decade ago against the government of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was accused of rigging the elections to gain a second term in office, and the Western media hailed what became known as the “Green Movement” against the ruling regime.
However, the authorities managed to quell the protests, though with heavy causalities. Some sporadic protests went unnoticed from 2009 until 2017.
Since thousands took to the streets of Tehran fewer than two years ago, some small-scale protests have been quickly quashed by the authorities in Iran. By the end of 2017 and a couple of weeks into 2018, demonstrations had started once again in Iran’s second-largest city of Mashhad and had then spread to other cities.
People were angry because of economic hardships, with rising prices affecting their ability to buy staple goods. The protesters then added chants against government corruption and mismanagement, with some questioning why Iran was funding proxy groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza while Iranians themselves faced shortages.
Towards the end of last year, Iranian teachers staged demonstrations calling for higher wages. Other middle-class protests were quickly put down by the authorities. Since the 2009 protests, popular anger has been for economic reasons, and when exiled opposition and Western or regional powers have tried to politicise such protests this had helped the Iranian regime to rejuvenate its traditional slogans and justify its heavy-handedness.
With the protests in Lebanon and Iraq now being thought to weaken Iran’s influence in the region, some observers are seeing the fuel-price protests as the beginning of a major popular revolt against the Iranian regime.
However, an adviser to the Iranian president wrote this week on Twitter that Iran was not Lebanon or Iraq. The adviser, Hosamudin Ashna, said that the “American Embassy in Tehran has long been closed, and we will not allow the US client media to decide our future.”
Nevertheless, many people still remember that when the so-called Arab Spring uprisings started in Tunisia in 2011, other countries in the region responded by saying “we’re not Tunisia”. Even so, Iran is different in many respects as it has thus far managed to deter more widespread popular uprisings.
American statements in support of the protests in Iran are also helping the regime more than the people of Iran, particularly since the economic hardships in the country are a result of US sanctions.
The decision to increase fuel prices came a few days after the Americans stressed the “deepening” of their policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran. At an oil industry conference in Abu Dhabi last week, Frank Fannon, head of the US State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources, said the US was introducing a potential increase in the enforcement of sanctions on the exports of refined oil products from Iran.
Though Iran’s exports of such refined products are already within the sanctions regime, penalties have rarely been enforced, with the focus having been primarily on crude-oil shipments. The Bureau later said in a statement clarifying Fannon’s remarks that “we are now looking more broadly for potential targets to sanction the purchases of refined products. We are not just sticking to crude oil.”
Some analysts see the Iranian government move as a desperate step to curb fuel use at home so it can export more. Selling refined products is easier to conceal than crude-oil shipments. But its ability to do so will depend on Iranian refineries producing refined products at the same capacity, which is in doubt due to the sanctions against the country.
As the sanctions persist and deepen as the US has promised, the struggle of the Iranian people continues. The regime may lose the argument that external enemies are to blame for the country’s economic hardships, and the protests are unlikely to die out soon.
They might not be as huge as the 1979 protests that ousted the former shah and brought the rule of the ayatollahs to Iran. But if they continue for the next few months, they could gather pace to lead to regime change in Iran, as many outside the country are hoping.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.